10 Prominent Women Education Leaders Share Steps to Improve the U.S. Education System

Learn from voices inside the American education system on what works well and what needs improvements.
10 Prominent Women Education Leaders Share Steps to Improve the U.S. Education System
Image credit: via Authority Magazine
15+ min read
This story originally appeared on Authority Magazine

The US K-12 and University System as a whole, has a lot of things that it does well. While that is true, there is no question that the US education system has much room for improvement.

Authority Magazine recently ran an interview series called “5 Things We Must Do to Improve the US Education System.” We had the opportunity to talk to scores of school and university leaders to discuss what is working, and what is not working in the US Education System.

In the course of our interviews we asked these leaders the following questions:

  • Can you identify five areas of the US education system that are going really great?
  • Can you identify the five key areas of the US education system that should be prioritized for improvemen and explain why they are so critical?
  • If you had the power to influence or change the entire US educational infrastructure, which five things would you implement to improve and reform our education system?

Below are ten highlights from each woman's ideas.

These interviews have been edited for length and clarity. 

Related: 10 Top Executives at 10 Household-Name Companies Share the Things They Wish They Knew From the Start

Martha D. Saunders (President of the University of West Florida)

Martha D. Saunders (President of the University of West Florida)
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Areas where the US education system is doing well:

I think in many ways, our higher education system is the envy of the world.

  1. The U.S. has an incredibly strong community college system that we can rely on to provide students opportunities where they are.
  2. Students can obtain a degree from public universities at a very low cost — Florida being the second lowest in the country.
  3. Our undergraduates are getting more hands-on experience. They’re not waiting until graduation to figure out what they’re going to do. They’re getting high-impact practices or internships. They’re seeing those as very beneficial.
  4. We’re much more attentive in student-support areas. We provide more career counseling and better advising.
  5. We’re being more responsive to industry, especially in the STEM fields, because the industry is changing, the body of knowledge is changing and the shelf life of faculty is changing. If you’re not investing in faculty, it trickles down and the quality of education provided to students suffers.

Areas that need to be prioritized for improvement:

  1. I would strongly encourage school-readiness programs. Communities need to make sure that every child is ready for first grade.
  2. On the other end of the education spectrum, in Florida in particular, universities all have the capability of being the best in the world at something and we need to give them room to grow and invest in what they do well.
  3. We really need to take a look at the overall four-year curriculum because some students are coming in with large numbers of dual enrollment credits. They’re technically juniors when they arrive. Are we really serving their needs by forcing the old core model on them? We need to look at our overall core requirements and see if they’re still meaningful when we have so many students coming out of secondary education with that type of dual enrollment credit.
  4. Internships should be prioritized for a couple of reasons; one, it gives students a leg up to get hired, and also a better understanding of that profession. It is a waste of time and money to major in something that you’re either not going to be good at or you’re not going to like, so internships help students determine their interests and passions.
  5. Student debt is huge. It’s more problematic in some places than others. We spend a lot of time counseling our students on debt.

What I think we should do to improve and reform our education system:

  1. Fund it equitably. There is too much discrepancy in our current system.
  2. Better prepare our educators. Take a look at the teachers we’re prepping. I think we could do a better job of marketing ourselves to students who want to be teachers or market teaching as a profession to our students. I would treat it like the Peace Corps. It’s the hardest job you’ll ever love.
  3. Remove some of the disparities impacting students. There’s too much funding unevenness. I have family members who are attending a costly private school and I don’t believe they’re receiving any better education than the nearby public school. We need to stop siphoning off funding for public schools.
  4. I’m a strong believer in core competencies. We’ve drifted over the years. We tend to think the solution is more time in school, more courses. Students need to be able to read, write and calculate. Good things will flow from that.
  5. I’m an advocate for foreign language requirements. It challenges you and provides cultural awareness. There is another world out there besides the United States. This next generation is coming into a much smaller world and they should understand that other cultures have different ways of doing things and they still get things done.

Dr. Julie E. Wollman (President of Widener University)

Dr. Julie E. Wollman (President of Widener University)
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Areas where the US education system is doing well:

  1. There is greater access to college for a more diverse group than ever before.
  2. We know more than ever about how to teach effectively to promote learning and we understand that the best teaching is, at the same time, learning.
  3. We understand diverse student needs and how to support them better than ever before.
  4. College students today are committed, eager to learn and want to use their education to make the world a better place.
  5. Schools and colleges are modeling how to find common ground in a society that needs to see it.

Areas that need to be prioritized for improvement:

  1. Access to good K-12 education. This are is critical because quality education is a key factor in future health, quality of life, and overall success.
  2. Early childhood education. This area is critical whether in a school or home setting, because early childhood is the period of most rapid development and it has the greatest impact on lifetime outcomes.
  3. Effective communication about college education, outcomes and impact. This area is critical because the negative narrative about higher education (often coming from those in positions of power thanks to their own higher education) misrepresents the importance, value and return on investment of higher education. A college degree provides enhanced earning power and career options, which are important to individual satisfaction, strong communities and the strength of our economy.
  4. Stagnant change in the business model for colleges. Innovation has happened in all other aspects of higher education. This area is critical because students seek flexibility, convenience and opportunities for lifelong learning when they need it.
  5. Clarify that free college is not free; college education is costly to deliver. This area is critical because the slogan overlooks the fact that we will have to pay for it somehow or the quality will decline precipitously, and we will have a two-tiered education system — the one that’s low cost and low quality and the one that’s high quality and accessible only to the wealthy.

What I think we should do to improve and reform our education system:

  1. Fund all K-12 schools appropriately to achieve equity of opportunity. I think I’ve explained why, above. Without this we lose talent, fail to build strong communities and a strong economy, and fail children who are born curious and hopeful but too often have those qualities snuffed out by poor educational opportunities.
  2. Make teaching a highly respected career. When I became a teacher I was told by many that I was “wasting my Harvard education.”
  3. Make prisons a hotbed of education. There is such a strong spirit of hope and a desire for opportunity among many incarcerated individuals. Rehabilitation is possible and recidivism can be reduced dramatically through education that creates opportunities. As a country, we can spend less money on prisons and more on education in the long run.
  4. Restructure the student loan market with federal support, to mandate reasonable interest rates that will incentivize investment in higher education. This will allow people to better their lives, as noted above.
  5. Make bias disappear. Bias results in inequitable access to and treatment in educational settings. Bias is unjust and we waste a lot of talent this way.

Shelli Brunswick (COO of the Space Foundation)

Shelli Brunswick (COO of the Space Foundation)
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Areas where the US education system is doing well:

The US education system is making important strides to catch up with the rate of change in the job market and prepare lifelong learners for long-term employment. Here are some areas in which we are seeing pivotal growth:

  1. A growing number of progressive school systems are partnering with third-party organizations, like the Space Foundation, their communities and subject matter experts in higher education and private industry to expand their students’ awareness, access to space-based technologies, training for job and career paths, certification programs and role models.
  2. In our experience, large aerospace suppliers like Northrop Grumman and Lockheed Martin are providing sponsorships and scholarships to programs such as the Space Foundation Discovery Center and New Generation Leadership initiatives for aspiring young aerospace leaders. We are also working hard to increase apprenticeship programs.
  3. There is an increasing awareness of the importance of hands-on and immersive learning experiences. The Space Foundation’s Discover the Universe and Explore the Universe programs are founded on the principles of immersive, hands-on training in space technology.
  4. Opportunities for teacher professional development are critical and most education systems are increasing their support. The Space Foundation’s Space Across the Curriculum program helps teachers integrate space-based technology into their daily curriculum.

Areas that need to be prioritized for improvement:

The US education system needs to continue to revitalize its approach to education with both what is taught and how it is taught to prepare students to be lifelong learners and valuable contributors for a sustainable workforce in the space economy.

  1. Space education needs to be fully integrated into core curriculum. All facets of daily life are fully integrated with space technologies, yet today, space education is often relegated to after-school programs and summer camps.
  2. Education cannot do it alone. They must collaborate and partner with private enterprise, communities, government agencies and subject matter experts to build a realistic and pragmatic training foundation to inspire and prepare students.
  3. Education needs to nurture lifelong learners, promoting and supporting a culture of owning one’s education and driving one’s destiny through multimodal, blended learning opportunities, such as DIY online, virtual seminars, regional workshops, hands-on immersion, peer-to-peer, certification, role-model inspired and skill-building specific to workforce requirements.
  4. Education needs to invest in building soft skills, such as creativity, problem-solving and critical thinking. Technology and automation are rapidly changing the dynamic of work, so education must prepare students for jobs that haven’t even been thought of yet and those that will change dramatically through the course of their careers.
  5. Education needs a better bridge to the world beyond the classroom. We must do a better job of recruiting role models that inspire students to pursue STEM degrees and mentor students about marketplace opportunities.

What I think we should do to improve and reform our education system:

To envision the US education infrastructure of the future, here are five things that should be integral to the education system:

  1. Partner collaboration between educational institutions and subject matter experts from the community, government agencies, public and private industry. This will advance awareness, access, training, networking and mentoring with real-world experience. For instance, the Space Commerce team at the Space Foundation engages with communities, entrepreneurs, small to medium businesses, educational institutions and incubators to determine needs and curate custom-tailored programs, workshops and events that further space technology innovation and open doors for participation and contributions. We recently partnered with an incubator and state university in Youngstown, Ohio, to conduct a space commerce workshop for students, entrepreneurs, innovators and small businesses to address the most common challenges in building space-based technology businesses.
  2. Soft skill development balanced with hard skill developmentSoft skills are needed for assessing situations, analyzing data, brainstorming solutions, thinking creatively, decision-making, problem-solving, team collaboration, etc. This will raise agile solution seekers to solve future challenges and serve future roles that will evolve over time. Hard skills are needed that more closely align specific skill sets with specific jobs and careers. This will bridge students more effectively with immediate workforce opportunities. Examples: We are seeing soft skills emphasized in the “flipping the classroom” movement, in which class time is interactive discussions, analysis, brainstorming and problem solving, while lecturing, research and data collection is happening at home. In light of automation and new technologies, we are also seeing higher education embracing new curriculums for skill building around AI, machine learning and data analytics.
  3. Immersive, hands-on learning is essential to active learning, retention and nurturing curiosity. Examples: The Space Foundation delivers space education beyond the textbook to more than 50K students per year by developing curriculums based in immersive experiences that make space technology come alive through Discover the Universe field programs and Explore the Universe summer camps. Our Space Foundation Discovery Center is one of the most advanced, space-based, educational centers in the world, featuring hands-on experiences in the El Pomar Space Gallery, Northrop Grumman Science Center and the Lockheed Martin Space Education Center.
  4. Integrating space-based technology throughout daily curriculum with knowledge and training for space innovation and its applications to all facets of life. For example, in its "Space Across the Curriculum" program, the Space Foundation develops curriculum and training programs that have helped more than 10K teachers integrate space education into their daily core curriculum through hands-on activities. Case in point, for the thirteenth year, the Space Foundation conducted teacher professional development for educators in Charles County, Maryland, public schools. A week-long program featured immersive experiences with space principles and a public community night featuring a former NASA astronaut.
  5. Role models and mentors from public and private industry integrated throughout daily curriculum to inspire and deepen the understanding of knowledge to real-world implications. Example: Founded in 2008, our New Generation Leadership program connects aspiring young leaders to top space professionals that can provide real-world career advice, guidance and job roadmaps. Program opportunities are conducted at our annual Space Symposium, attended by 15K space professionals, along with regional events such as the Small Sat Conference in Utah and IAC Conference in Washington D.C. In turn, NewGen Ambassadors mentor high school students in partnership with programs like Upward Bound.

 

Kenda Lawson, M.Ed. (CEO of Owls Education Company)

Kenda Lawson, M.Ed. (CEO of Owls Education Company)
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Areas where the US education system is doing well:

That’s a great question to address because I am getting it a lot lately. 

  1. Standards-based system. The move towards a common, standards-based system of education was essential to ensuring equity and quality in education for many kids.
  2. Supportive services for families. We have also made tremendous strides in providing access to support services for families. We have come to understand that learning cannot occur when a child’s basic needs are not met.
  3. Individualized instruction. The efforts to provide access to individualized instruction and technology are also admirable. The best thing we have going is that the discussion about how to improve our schools is ongoing and a part of the public consciousness.

Areas that need to be prioritized for improvement:

  1. Data analysis. In this era of high-stakes testing and accountability most authorities will tell you that data is essential. There are hundreds of systems available to help schools track, store, and present data from constant assessments. The question is: What should we be doing with all that data once we have it? Much of my work as a consultant is to give school leaders and their faculties the ability to process the volume, variety, and velocity of data necessary to make informed decisions and adhere to current best practices. It is important to provide training that empowers teams to have productive conversations about how to improve results. They learn to routinely and easily dig-in when presented with new data using data-intelligence skills.
  2. Technology integration. One of the things I mentioned earlier was that we have largely accomplished the goal of putting a computer in every classroom. What we have yet to do is ensure that students use the technology that is available to them in meaningful ways. The potential of technology to transform teaching and learning remains largely unrealized. Part of the problem is that teachers are wary of technology because it can be difficult to navigate, untrustworthy and time-consuming. While learning is an inherently social experience, delivering individualized learning programs to students requires sacrificing collaboration and, often, critical thinking. Our current application of technology in classrooms has created a tension between teaching and technology. This is harmful to our students because the ability to navigate and integrate technology is certain to be a major factor in the careers that are available to them in the future.
  3. Responsive pedagogy. We must do a better job of making sure that students have access to equitable educations that equip them to overcome trauma and social barriers. Our teachers are ill-equipped to deal with the level of need they will face in schools. Teacher training programs must do a better job of enabling educators to have difficult conversations and navigate challenging issues concerning race, inequality, poverty and trauma
  4. Literacy. The shift to Common Core forced the US education system to confront the way it taught the skills in many subjects in isolation. While our language changed to include “integrated skills”, our methods and overall outlook did not. We know that we can maximize our students’ learning and strengthen their understanding by highlighting the connections across content areas. Literacy is the ability to make connections in order to solve problems and communicate with others. In an ideal system, all teachers would be teachers of literacy. In practice, many people complain about our students’ poor reading skills but only one group is held accountable. If we are to improve, that has to change.
  5. Lifelong learning. Our rapidly changing economic landscape will require employees to be flexible and creative thinkers. Students are preparing to enter industries that do not yet exist where they will use tools that have not been invented. As millions of students go off to college and careers, most lack the 21st-century skills to compete in the economy of the future. It is crucial that learning not end when people leave high school or even college. It falls to us (and now) to prioritize learning readiness and continuous education. Many of our nation’s colleges and corporations have already begun to realize that they will have a part to play in cultivating the workforce of tomorrow. As young as primary school, we can teach resiliency, soft skills, and lifelong learning skills. One reason that education reform is so critical is because it is so timely. We can seize this moment while there is momentum and a great deal of motivation to change our education system. A great deal of that momentum will come from millennials, who now make up the majority of the workforce. They can leverage the highly visual nature of their experiences to see patterns in data and motivate others to be responsive. A natural intuitiveness about technology means they can be a resources when training teachers because they are more comfortable learning new software and using devices during instruction. The integration of technology more seamlessly during instruction has they potential to accelerate learning and literacy. 

What I think we should do to improve and reform our education system:

  1. Intuitive understanding of how to collect, analyze and evaluate data. The reactive and inadequate nature of our responses to data often drives students to drop-out and drive teachers to leave the profession. We can do a much better job of developing methods that promote more productive and effective conversations around data. Several years ago, an administrator sat down to review the baseline assessment data from each of my two language arts classes with me. The September screening revealed that only 8 percent of the students in one class was proficient and just thirty percent of my accelerated class was proficient. The administrator asked if I was concerned by these results. My response was that I was aware of the data but not concerned by it. I produced my own copy of the report complete with scribbles, hand-drawn graphs, and a detailed plan centered around seven groups of students. I knew just where my students were and where they were going. Not only did the administrator accept this response, she seemed pleased. Her goal was really to make sure that I was responsive to the data. She initiated an open-ended conversation and allowed me to describe my plan to meet our common goals, made possible from a trusting relationship. 
  2. Integrate technology as a tool not a replacement. I would encourage schools to integrate technology in a way that provides a platform for maker education but does not attempt to replace educators. A teacher I coached once explained that there were three separate educational technologies she was required to use each week in addition to giving a weekly test. That meant that three days each week, students were remediated, coached and assessed while sitting in front of a computer for the entirety of the class period. At the end of her account she announced, “I teach on Mondays and Tuesday.” She wanted me to help her be more efficient and effective during those two days. Teachers should teach every day — full stop. While technology has an important role to play in the process, it is a poor substitute. Research has already begun to bear this out. Unprecedented access to technology and millions spent on programs have not yielded fundamentally better learning outcomes. This does not mean that the computer carts and programs are useless however; we simply need a new approach. Our approach has been to develop technology-enriched curriculum to help educators become familiar with the tools available to enhance learning while using easy to navigate curriculum that makes every teacher a master teacher.
  3. Expanded collaboration. I would work to enrich the share economy and enable broader collaboration around education. One of the great benefits of our modern world and work is the access to share and collaborate with each other. This collaboration strengthens ideas and allows them to spread quickly and organically in a way that teachers more readily accept. It empowers educators to serve as resources for each other and brings a sense of purpose and autonomy back to the profession.
  4. Reaffirm teaching as an important profession. I do not know where it went wrong, but teaching is the only profession that I can think of where policy is so often written by people who have never practiced. One thing teachers are taught quickly in school is that with great responsibility comes very little power. This is the reality for many teachers across the country. While educators know what they need, they are rarely ever asked. While we expect teachers to be more qualified than ever, their expertise is not valued. Successful schools value the experience and talents of the people in their building. Schools with shared leadership models promote teacher autonomy. There is a culture problem in our industry and it must be addressed before meaningful reform can occur.
  5. Address the innovation drought. The high-stakes nature of education means that taking a risk that does not pay off can cost people their jobs. That kind of atmosphere snuffs out innovation. It means that an ingrained yet ineffective strategy becomes more preferable to trying new ideas. It ensures that schools continue to go to the same places and find largely the same answers.

Julie Margretta Wilson (Founder of the Institute for the Future of Learning)

Julie Margretta Wilson (Founder of the Institute for the Future of Learning)
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Areas where the US education system is doing well:

  1. There is a growing recognition that the system was designed for the Industrial era that we need a fundamentally different system to prepare young people for an unknowable future.
  2. There is very promising work in the area of high-quality project-based learning — and it is growing.
  3. The collective energy and work on competency-based and personalized learning is gaining momentum.
  4. Rethinking assessment is critical if we are to transform the system in a meaningful and sustainable way — early work is beginning to take shape and form via the Mastery Transcript Consortium and the Assessment for Learning Project.
  5. Despite the system’s challenges, it still manages to attract committed, visionary educators to its ranks.

Areas that need to be made a priority for improvement:

I will answer this question in a slightly different way than five key areas — I think there are more than five and they are grounded in the overarching shift from the industrial model to the post-industrial model. It’s important we have a solid grounding in the pedagogical change that is needed and the key shifts that such a culture change requires. In other words, the pedagogy needs to reflect the outcomes we seek.

When we decide that skills such as creativity, collaboration and critical thinking are important for our students to learn, we quickly bump into the question of “how are these skills best learned?”

The questions of "what’s worth learning?" and "how is it best learned?" are inextricably linked. A teacher cannot be expected to teach risk-taking if students and teachers alike are not allowed to experiment and fail in the learning process. Collaboration requires group work, self-assessment, peer assessment and iterative reflection and changes in behavior — and teachers being given the space and time to work as teams. Creative problem solving requires a student to think for herself, not what the back of the textbook says she should think — and for teachers to have the autonomy to do the same.

The industrial age model of education is grounded in a behaviorist theory of "child as empty vessel" waiting to be filled, as well as learning is a matter of disseminating content, content that is dutifully consumed, retained and regurgitated for a test.

I am not saying that rote memorization should never be used. However, the pendulum swung much too far in the aftermath of No Child Left Behind with its heavy focus on worksheets and rote memorization. It is one tool available in a much broader toolkit.

A well-designed learning experience stretches a student out of his comfort zone and supports and develops his intrinsic motivation to learn. What was your most impactful learning experience? Why was it so impactful?

Teachers know this, yet the system is designed in such a way as to work actively against sound pedagogical practices, and what it takes to learn the skills described earlier.

So how are these skills best learned? By going back to the roots of how we have learned for thousands of years — through hands-on interdisciplinary real-world work, failure and trying again, exposure to mentors and guides, through story, through repeated practice with reflection and feedback, and by having the freedom to take risks.

Changing a system is one of the most challenging things to do. If we are saying that we want to support more creativity, collaboration and appetite for risk in schools, then the organizational structure, systems and processes must change, and change significantly, in order to support and reflect that pedagogy.

And those changes fly in the face of how a school is typically structured. The majority of school and district structures take the form of the industrial era hierarchy, where decision-making is consolidated at the top of the organization, with reduced autonomy regarding outcomes as we get closer to the classroom. If we want students to be collaborative, creative, self-directed learners, the system in which this work happens must reflect a collaborative, creative, autonomous culture. Learning is an inherently risk-oriented enterprise. We learn most deeply when given the opportunity to try, fail, learn and try again.

I believe an appetite for failure and "not knowing" is the heart of systems’ change and helps to explain why so many school and district change initiatives fail. The system does not tolerate failure. It does not tolerate learning and, for the most part, it does not give autonomy and the role of change leadership to the people doing the actual work: teachers. It is also very unforgiving to leaders who have a vision for change and who undertake the hard work of its implementation.

Dr. Christine M. Riordan (President of Adelphi University)

Dr. Christine M. Riordan (President of Adelphi University)
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Areas where the US education system is doing well:

Now more than ever, statistics indicate that high school graduates are feeling empowered to pursue a college degree. The portion of high school grads who go to college is around its highest rate ever. While this trend isn’t perfect, it is promising and here are four examples:

  1. The national student body — at the college level — is the most diverse it’s ever been. Students of color made up 45.2 percent of undergraduates in 2016, up from 29.6 percent in 1996, according to the American Council on Education.
  2. A college degree still helps ensure financial stability, with graduates seeing roughly half the unemployment rates of those who did not attend college, according to the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics.
  3. Both underrepresented minority groups and women have made strides in faculty representation. The former accounted for about 13 percent of faculty jobs in 2013, up from 9 percent 20 years earlier, and women held nearly half of all faculty jobs, according to the National Center for Higher Education Statistics.
  4. More than a dozen states are investing in high-quality preschool, a key determinant of future success and growth.

Areas that need to be prioritized for improvement:

In addition to the area noted on preparing our students for the future, here are five areas that we should be prioritizing for improvement.

  1. We need to be placing more women in tenured and tenure-track positions. The percentage of women faculty members in part-time appointments actually increased from 1993 to 2013 — from 48 percent to 56 percent — even as the overall number of women faculty members grew. To improve the quality of scholarship, education and opportunity, colleges and universities must place a priority on the advancement of women in faculty roles.
  2. Science, mathematics, engineering and technology — STEM — fields are ripe for growth and recruitment, in particular among women and underrepresented minority groups. Just 4 percent of the national workforce is made up of scientists and engineers, yet this group creates jobs for the other 96 percent, according to the National Research Council of the National Academies. These fields will drive our collective future, but too many of our students are not up to the tasks. One example: Some 75 percent of eighth-graders are not proficient in mathematics, according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress.
  3. Up to 44.7 million Americans carry debt from student loans, with the overall debt load topping that of credit cards and car loans. These debt levels are a heavy and discouraging burden to millions of Americans, hobbling the quality of life for many and preventing many others from even pursuing a college degree. The system of higher education must do more to improve accessibility and ease cost burdens for those without excess means.
  4. Around one-third of people who enroll in college in the US won’t finish a degree but will still carry college debt. As college-level educators, we need to make sure that we're not only enrolling those best-suited for college — but also that we’re equipping and supporting them to complete the journey.
  5. Funding for public schools at the K-12 level should be equitable. The highest-poverty districts see an average of $1,200 less per child than the least-poor districts, the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights has found. Such discrepancies help perpetuate deep inequities in our public education system and society at large, extending to the college level and beyond. Also critical to prioritize is funding for higher education, particularly private colleges. According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, there has been a $9 billion reduction in state funding over the past decade, forcing a greater portion of costs onto students and their families, squeezing affordability and access.

What I think we should do to improve and reform our education system:

  1. A national program to help upcoming K-12 teachers specialize in STEM fields, with an emphasis on encouraging women and those from underrepresented communities. This would be modeled after a similar effort at Adelphi, and expanded. It would broaden the nation’s foundation for launching new thinkers, academics and innovators in those crucial STEM areas. Special attention would be paid to placing these new teachers in underserved and underprivileged communities, tapping into neighborhoods too often overlooked.
  2. Require community service by college students. Higher education has a mandate to develop contributing, active members of society who think critically and understand their surroundings. At Adelphi, we’ve advanced this principle by forging community bonds that position our students in a variety of partner organizations. Imagine if this were a core part of a college education everywhere: Students at the University of Southern California could be helping Los Angeles kindergartners learn to read, while those at Columbia in New York could distribute blankets to the homeless.
  3. Make core college and university resources, such as the library, available to all alumni in perpetuity. The nature of higher education is shifting. We can’t learn enough in four years to sustain a lifetime. The pace of change for the workforce is quickening, and alumni need a lifeline. As educational resources evolve to reflect the times, alumni should be able to take advantage of those university resources well after graduation. In addition to library access, this could include certain course materials and online training resources.
  4. Mandate financial-literacy classes. This could begin at the high school level, as it already has for at least 20 states that have required lessons in personal finance. Too many college students don’t finish a degree because they haven’t taken sufficient steps to plan for the finances. But financial literacy isn’t a panacea — it doesn’t solve the core problem of access. Mandatory financial literacy can be only a part of a push to broaden access to higher education, including financial aid.
  5. Equalize K-12 funding. To address gaping differences in funding between impoverished and wealthy school districts, implement level funding formulas that allocate money to each district in equal measure depending more heavily on enrollment. While some states, such as Connecticut and New Jersey, have already taken steps in this direction, a national approach would help put all students on more level footing — with more equitable opportunities early in life.

Autumn Cyprès, Ph.D. (Dean at University of Alabama at Birmingham)

Autumn Cyprès, Ph.D. (Dean at University of Alabama at Birmingham)
Image credit: via Authority Magazine

Areas where the US education system is doing well:

I think we need to consider what the word great means. I think any time a school system or university can show evidence of being more intentionally inclusive, and considering the intersections of student identities, such as ethnicity, sexuality, (dis)ability, gender and religion, mental and physical health and socioeconomic status is significant because that means there is focus on the whole person who is learning.

I think any time you hear about policy makers or legislators connecting in authentic ways with experts in the field of education it is a victory for our society because then schools improve. One of the things that is interesting about the profession of education is that many assume they understand education because they attended school. That is like saying, “I understand how hospitals work because I was born in one.”

When we see efforts where there is care given to ensure that schools are safe and orderly learning environments, I think that is great. I think when we see learning environments that encourage learners to think beyond their own zone of comfort that is a great thing. Lastly, anytime I see learning environments where students are encouraged to stretch themselves to make a difference in the world through public service that is also great.

Areas that need to be prioritized for improvement:

  1. Data tells us that this generation of learners is one of the most anxious in our nation’s history. This is due to a lot of things, including poverty, increased violence in schools, and the increased tension and violence found within discourses about difference. The number one area that we need to actively focus on is creating supports for all learners that center on intervention supports for mental health services for learners and their families. That includes most specifically addressing bullying as a serious matter and not something that is a rite of passage.
  2. In my view, the number two priority should be focused on issues of physical health. Not only by providing health and nutrition education to students but finding new and creative ways to address the food deserts that are found in areas of poverty.
  3. Social Service support systems need to be in place for all schools. There needs to be an integration of social service supports for all students because of the myriad of issues that affect a student’s readiness to learn.
  4. Shift the focus and accountability measures for classroom teacher from disseminating facts to be checked on a standardized test to teaching problem solving, creative teamwork and thinking skills.
  5. Class size matters: Students learn more in smaller classes. Smaller means 15 or less in a class. In my opinion, this applies to doctoral students as well as kindergarteners.

All of the above are critical because they speak to our nation’s continual struggle with the purpose of school, the messy realities of democracy, and the often overlooked intersections of the factors, for example poverty, violence, addiction, anxiety and other life impacting issues that affect a learner’s ability to stay focused in the classroom.

What I think we should do to improve and reform our education system:

  1. Stronger alliance between community resources and schools and universities, like the community located within our School of Education at UAB. We offer counseling services, service based learning and opportunities for educators and school systems to interact with our faculty and students to create a community of support throughout our state.
  2. Stronger bridges between authentic research on best teaching practices and actions of educators.
  3. Include educators in the process of creating policies that affect learners at all levels.
  4. Address the following wraparound issues that affect how learners engage with information in classrooms: food availability, poverty, anxiety and societal violence.
  5. Require that all schools have a nurse, certified family counselor, and a social worker.

Dr. Lauren Anne St. John (Associate Chair for Clinical Education at University of Texas at Arlington)

Dr. Lauren Anne St. John (Associate Chair for Clinical Education at University of Texas at Arlington)
Image credit: via Authority Magazine

Areas where the US education system is doing well:

  1. The proliferation of quality online education options is one area going well. As online programs are being integrated in traditional and not-for-profit universities and demonstrating rigor through strong student outcomes while growing enrollment, long-held beliefs in academia are being challenged. This ultimately encourages more innovation and inquiry into how to harness technology to advance the future of higher education.
  2. There are also more technologies available to provide holistic student support, which helps streamline the student experience, increase success and reduce attrition. Universities can continue to hone the technology adoption process, hiring technology experts to support university leaders and professors.
  3. We are seeing the student population become increasingly diverse, and programs are embracing non-traditional students. With shifting demographics, the United States is more diverse than it has ever been, and continued focus on creating a more diverse teaching staff that looks like the new America will foster inclusive learning environments.
  4. The job market and employers themselves are continuing to shape higher education, which will help students more easily translate their degrees into meaningful work opportunities. It is important as well that university faculty continue to have the freedom to carry out research that is independent and devoid of any unnecessary external influences.
  5. And there are more financial aid resources and educational resources than ever, including progressive approaches like free Community College (in California and Tennessee) that continues to empower underserved and at-risk populations to advance their education.

Areas that need to be prioritized for improvement:

  1. Teacher pay is in need of improvement. This past academic year, we saw teachers strike in several parts of the country, including Oklahoma, West Virginia and Los Angeles, the nation’s second largest city. Most of the strikes revolved around pay. I read a story in the Washington Post about a striking teacher in Oklahoma who worked seven side jobs just to make ends meet. We will not be able to recruit our best and brightest to the teaching profession if we don’t address teacher compensation.
  2. Evaluations are another key area to be prioritized for improvement. In recent years, we have seen an increased emphasis on treating students like “customers.” This is particularly so at the university-level. It makes professors beholden to students, forcing them to walk a fine line between adhering to high standards and striving to keep their jobs. While universities ought to continue to have students evaluate their teachers, its current weight in determining tenure, promotion and other markers of performance is problematic.
  3. Funding — there are so many wide disparities in the funding of our school districts and this manifests itself in test scores and student performance at the college level. Around the country, many school districts struggle to get bonds passed. We are an aging society. Many voters don’t have children in the schools and vote against the bonds out of perceived lack of self-interest. This failure to see the big picture is detrimental to their communities and to all of us.
  4. Work experience in higher education. There is a lot of research and some anecdotal findings that suggest work experience leads to a more positive view of the learning experience, higher employment rates and possibly to higher incomes. As we continue to enhance comprehensive support services, including technologies that can make navigating and succeeding in college more streamlined and efficient for both students and universities, we can reduce cost and improve educational outcomes relative to workplace learning or clinical and practicum experiences.
  5. I think transparency can also be an area prioritized for improvement. Students need credible, reliable information about academic rankings, earning potential, reputation and accountability. The technology is available to help correlate clinical placement characteristics and student success metrics for example.

What I think we should do to improve and reform our education system:

  1. Overall, I would implement strategies to improve student preparedness for college, so coursework isn’t focused on remediation and universities aren’t lowering standards on admission and throughout the program durations.
  2. Along similar lines, I would like to enhance career readiness focus in higher education by rethinking undergraduate curriculum. Employers see many newly-hired graduates as deficient in basic skills such as writing, problem-solving, and critical thinking.
  3. I would increase funding, particularly for public universities and community colleges.
  4. I would emphasize continuation of research, utilizing available technologies to better track student experience and academic performance. Specifically, I would focus on identifying indicators of post-graduate success.
  5. I would also work to improve compensation and training for college faculty to address the evolving economic and employment landscape. Particularly, I would like to better utilize available technologies among the faculty to enhance student achievement.

Sandra Mohr (Dean at New England College of Optometry)

Sandra Mohr (Dean at New England College of Optometry)
Image credit: via Authority Magazine

Areas where the US education system is doing well:

Education is currently going through a time of rapid change and challenges. Many are questioning the rising cost of education and the value of a college education. The US education system has many great things working in its favor, however changes are needed to continue evolving to meet the needs of a rapidly changing workplace.

  1. Education is seen as a basic right and taken for granted that opportunities will be available for learning. The US education system has existed for hundreds of years and has evolved to meet the needs of a changing society. There are many similarities throughout time but also many positive advances that have helped create today’s reality.
  2. With increased technological advances — more data is available that can be used for understanding the outcomes of investments into the educational system. This allows us to make better choices and decisions that are data-driven.
  3. Students have the freedom to choose schools, programs of study and research topics. This leads into more diverse ways of creating learning opportunities like micro learning and massively open online courses to help meet their educational needs.
  4. The higher education system is decentralized which allows institutions to innovate and design programs and services that help fill needs for the future of the American workforce. Students select from a wide variety of schools and programs and align their interests with the programs that best fit their future career path.

Areas that need to be prioritized for improvement:

As with any system, there are always areas that can be improved. From the PISA test data discussed above, there is opportunity for educational reform. Here are areas that I see as key priorities:

  1. Need to recreate an educational system able to change and meet an evolving society’s needs to remain competitive and adaptive. It is a monumental undertaking to change a huge system that is tasked with preparing the future workforce in a consistent manner to meet the needs of a changing society. As a relatively democratic system, it will take time to build momentum around future educational changes. This can also help with those who have become cautious of the merits of higher education through observing adaptations that meet the current and future educational needs. We are starting to see accrediting bodies open to innovative methods of providing education and colleges are looking to create certificates that stack and lead towards a degree to help create achievable milestones for adults.
  2. Lowering the cost of higher education without impacting the quality of services. Students are undertaking large amounts of debt to earn their degree which places a lot of stress on them to perform well and successfully find post-graduate careers to pay for college debt. We need to ensure students receive a positive return on their investment of education so that future generations make the same investment in their personal development.
  3. Create programs that help faculty learn innovative ways of teaching to enhance student learning. Students enter the classroom with a higher degree of technological skills and have almost instant access to information. Faculty need ongoing training and professional development to help students gain information literacy to further their learning process. It is essential that students become proficient in soft skills, like communication, problem solving, and critical thinking. Faculty play an essential part of the educational reform process and need to be valued for their role and treated as professionals who educate the next leaders of our country.
  4. Develop campuses that are inclusive and equitable environments so that all students feel welcome and have the tools to succeed. As the country is becoming more diverse, it is important to ensure that students have the opportunity to reach their full potential through access to education. Colleges are creating diversity roles on campus which is a positive step; however the idea of inclusive and equitable environment needs to be ingrained in everyone’s role on campus.
  5. Ensure that mental health of students is a key priority. In the past decade, college students have displayed increases in isolation, stress, anxiety, and depression. Higher education needs to better understand and provide treatment options to help students manage mental health concerns.

What I think we should do to improve and reform our education system:

  1. I would continue to work on building diverse learners that are representative of the population in the US. As a country, we need to provide incentives and create equitable opportunities for underrepresented groups so that they are able to gain the education and experiences necessary for success in the workplace. Completing STEM education opens up opportunities that are often not available without the education and experiences.
  2. Classroom learning will always have a place in the learning process. Finding ways of connecting classroom learning to opportunities outside of the classroom can build and develop skills. Interweaving learning in class with after school programs, summer camps, tutoring, and even career visits can increase interest in learning and skill development. Then ensuring equality in access to these out of classroom learning environments becomes the next important step.
  3. As for the adults working in their careers, we need to develop educational systems and processes that help focus professional development around growth and change opportunities. An employee will change jobs numerous times throughout their career and will need new and different skills at each of those career transitions.
  4. Another priority area is building stronger connections between employers and educational institutions to partner together to innovate the pedagogical experiences. Employers need to provide feedback on what is working from a career training perspective and share areas where employees need to increase their skills. Both sides need to know and understand what is happening during a program of study as well as the entry pathways into a career to help create stronger systems that support the employee and the success of the workforce.
  5. Another key area is investing in the training and development of teachers at all levels. As the world is changing, the way we teach needs to change to create individuals prepared for success in the workforce. This will require an ongoing investment in professional development of our teachers in these approaches. Creating the strongest and most prepared teachers possible empowers students to achieve their career goals and support the US economic growth engine.

Jennifer Winward, Ph.D. (CEO of Winward Academy)

Jennifer Winward, Ph.D. (CEO of Winward Academy)
Image credit: via Authority Magazine

Areas where the US education system is doing well:

  1. The "American Dream" is alive and well in US education. A student with the drive to succeed and the willingness to work hard, who also takes advantage of resources available, can achieve greatness.
  2. A US education promotes critical thinking and the ability to logically analyze. Curriculum standards are continually reviewed and assessed to identify areas for improvement.
  3. Numerous options exist for schooling so that parents can match their student to a school featuring a teaching method that will work best for their child. The range is large: public, private, religious, charter, military, home, Montessori, Waldorf or STEM-focused.
  4. Abundance of both government programs and of philanthropy from individuals and non-profits provides resources and support for deserving students who wouldn’t otherwise have access.
  5. Students who don’t feel safe can’t learn. The training of school teachers and administrators on threat assessment and threat management is becoming mandatory in a growing number of states.

While we still have a ways to go, it is important to recognize and appreciate what is going well. We should continue to explore and nurture these strengths as we also recognize areas for growth and improvement. The national dialogue is currently focused on education equity, which will continue to move us in the right direction.

Areas that need to be prioritized for improvement:

I advocate for these five strategies to improve classrooms:

  1. Recognize the issue: before we can improve outcomes, people must first recognize the well-researched disparities that exist in access to resources.
  2. Utilize the most effective research-based learning strategies: students need to be encouraged to learn from their mistakes and to paraphrase what they learn into their own words.
  3. Use thoughtful technology to aid students’ academics and to ease workload of teachers: Ed-tech solutions should be the student-centric application of technology to education, not vice versa.
  4. Track outcomes. Any additional resources incorporated into a classroom environment must be measured to ensure empirical success.
  5. Embrace personalization. Students need immediate personalized feedback on all questions based on their unique learning needs, and every opportunity to provide such personalization must be promoted.

These changes are critical to bring growth to our students’ skills, content knowledge and confidence. Our students deserve the best, and we must stay constantly committed to strategies that improve experiences both inside and outside the classroom — for students, for teachers, and for families.

What I think we should do to improve and reform our education system:

I love this question because it reminds me of one posed to me during my Ph.D. dissertation defense. One of my committee members asked me what I would do if I had a magic wand and unlimited resources to reform our education system. Interestingly, what I shared with the committee 10 years ago and what I’d say today are the same, which certainly reinforces the need for progress.

  1. There are myriad philanthropists and nonprofits who contribute to education equity initiatives. We need a formalized way to connect schools with documented needs to these individuals and organizations to fill those resource gaps.
  2. We must establish a well-defined, fact-based methodology for determining resources needed by schools. Data such as that developed by Sean Reardon and the Educational Opportunity Project at Stanford might be incorporated into the methodology.
  3. We absolutely need better training, better recognition, and better pay for excellent teachers. They have one of the most emotionally-draining and challenging careers, and we can’t risk losing the great ones. Teacher attrition is a serious problem, and when teachers leave within 1–2 years of starting at a school, it’s impossible to build consistent school culture, and schools lose that investment they made in training and onboarding.
  4. We must develop programs that help students determine the best path after high school — whether it’s college, trade school, junior college or the military. As adult mentors responsible for supporting and shaping students’ lives, we must listen to students so they will open up and listen in return. Only then will we ensure we’re supporting each student on his or her unique pathway to success.
  5. I worry about students’ writing skills. I consistently interact with college students who ask for points back on a midterm because what they wrote for their short answer isn’t what they meant. Unfortunately, that’s not how the world works. People don’t get “do-overs” in their written communication. Clearly, professional writing skills are essential, and students need more support to develop this skill.

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